Interview: Alon Shaya

Alon Shaya is an Israeli born chef who now calls New Orleans home. In 2017 after several launching several successful award-winning restaurants in New Orleans, Alon and his wife launched Pomegranate Hospitality Group which includes the restaurants Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver. 

Shaya has been awarded multiple James Beard awards and has written an acclaimed part memoir part cookbook in 2018 that traces his roots from his childhood in Israel and Philadelphia to the present day with stories and family recipes.

Alon has been focused on cooking at home and helping feed local frontline workers during the pandemic. I was very happy to catch up with him by phone in New Orleans to discuss food, Israel travel, and his Shaya Barnett Foundation.

How is the transition to carryout going at Saba?

We are not currently doing carryout and delivery at Saba anymore. (Update: Saba opened for dinner takeout May 8) We are doing it at Safta in Denver. With the rapid rise of cases in New Orleans and how quickly it is spreading here, it was best to give our team a chance to go home and take care of themselves and be safe and take a mental health break. We didn’t feel like it made sense to keep doing that. We have currently shut that down.

But it is still going on in Denver?

In Denver our restaurant is really big with a lot of space so our team can separate while they are working and the deliveries are going really well in Denver. It is still a fraction of the revenues we typically do, but it is a way to feed and nourish the community and keep people home and out of grocery stores. It has been as good as it can be there.

Are you supporting any other local causes in New Orleans?

I have been cooking out of my house for medical professionals. I helped with meals for 27 people today at Tulane University Medical Center. i made Hummus and Pita Bread yesterday and we sent out 77 portions of Red Beans and Rice to doctors and nurses. I feel like at my house I can really focus on cooking food and trying to help people has been working out really well.

Is there a way people can help support that?

Yes, there is a group of people called the Red Beans Krewe, a Mardi Gras Krewe, they organized a great cause. They have been reaching out to chefs and bakers and people that have been supplying them with food and they are taking the food and distributing it to different hospitals throughout the city. It is a great initiative. It is called Feeding the Front Lines and part of Krewe of Red Beans. I think it is a good grassroots way of helping out the community and giving us something to do. It is what we love to do. It is in my nature to try to heal people’s feelings and emotions through a meal. They have done a good job helping me with that and possibly a lot of different people in New Orleans.

You have lived in New Orleans for a long time now. What do you love most about the city?

I love the people here. I love the excitement and life, the cultural aspects and the music. I love the city so much. I love fishing and being outdoors. I feel like New Orleans was always meant to be my home.

When you opened up your two new restaurants, Saba and Safta, you made it a mission to have a team approach in everything you are doing in the business and bring the team along. Why was this important to you?

I thought the most important thing we could do as a company is be good to our team and create a safe and comfortable work environment for the people we work with. In some past work experiences, I have seen some horrible business owners do some horrible things to their colleagues and team members and felt like things could be better and should be better. 

When my wife Emily and I started Pomegranate Hospitality, we created core values of empowerment and respect and communication and equality. We have worked very hard on making sure those core values are important every single day. During this whole Coronavirus outbreak and disaster, we have looked to our core values as a company and that’s helped us to make the best decisions at the time on behalf of our team for their safety and mental health.

As a company, we have tried to do what we could to take care of them, whether it be paying people extra paid time off or other efforts. We started a team relief fund. We are able to disperse the money we made among all of our team members. We have been cooking family meals for them at the restaurant for them to pick-up and have a meal at home, all the little things we can do to try to make it as easy on everyone as possible is our duty and responsibility. 

Can you tell us about the Shaya Barnett Foundation?

I started the Shaya Barnett Foundation a few years ago with my Home Economics teacher from high school Donna Barnett and Seth Schran who was also my instructors in high school. Together we try to help vocational programs in New Orleans. We work with the New Orleans Career Center. In Denver, we work with the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus. I feel my life was saved by Donna and Seth. They helped me to forge a path for my life to believe in myself and realize my potential. I feel like there are a lot of young adults in the same position always trying to find something to inspire them. The Shaya Barnett Foundation will help assist those culinary programs at the New Orleans Career Center and the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus so that hopefully can make a difference in someone’s life like Donna and Seth made in mine.

I actually took a trip to Israel two years ago around Christmas. I know that is where you are from originally and you have gone back several times. What are your favorite places to visit when you go back?

I love Tel Aviv so much. I love how vibrant it is. Jaffa is the town where my Mom and Dad and my grandparents lived and where I was born. I have such fond memories of being a kid and going back to Jaffa to visit my grandparents and eat incredible food. I really like spending time in Tel Aviv and Jaffa and hanging out on the beach and eating at the restaurants and cafes and living life out there. It is a magical place.

They have amazing restaurants in Tel Aviv. I was surprised about the food culture there. You famously used your grandmother’s recipes when you opened Shaya. When you left and started Saba and Safta, how have you re-created the recipes or changed it up? What has been the process to create the menus in those places?

I don’t feel like I had to change or adjust anything. I try to stay true to my family’s recipes and what I have cooked throughout my career has shaped the way I cook food and think about food. It comes more organically. I work with my chefs and teams at both restaurants and it is very collaborative. We were able to take our whole management team to Israel a year ago. That trip was meant to give everyone a chance to build their own memories and their own stories and taste foods for the first time in Israel. 

We got to cook with people in their homes. We got to cook with a Bolivian woman and a Druze woman and a Yeminite woman and learn recipes from them. That is the way menus is created through that collaborative organic process of our collective experiences together along with food stemmed from my childhood and my grandmother’s recipes and my Mom’s recipes. Over the years we continue to build on all of that and it all has to do with that collaborative effort with the chefs.

I was able to go to a Druze village while I was there and had the best bread of my entire life.

The Druze are incredible cooks and amazing people. We were invited into their homes and shared stories of their families’ recipes. It was a very inspiring experience for all of us.

You also have a huge influence from Italy. You have gone to Italy and lived in that country for a period of time. What are your favorite destinations in Italy? How do your Israeli roots influence your Italian cooking style?

I feel like Italian food and Israeli food are based on tradition and history and really great ingredients and vegetables. It felt natural to cook both those cuisines. The olive oils and the eggplants and the goat cheeses and the tomatoes, all the great ingredients you see on Israeli menus, you see all over Italy. All of that combines together inside my brain and from there flavor profiles happen. When I was in Italy, I lived with a family and cured meats and rolled pastas and baked breads. I felt really at home there. 

I would say that Parma is my go to place because that is where I spent most of my time and developed great relationships with families there that I worked for. Anytime I go to Italy I try to get back to Parma and visit everyone and eat lots of prosciutto and parmesan.

Well I have to tell you, Domenica’s Lasagna is one of my favorite things in the entire world.

I learned that recipe from an 83 year old woman in Parma, Lasagna Bolognese.

I can’t even describe it to others. I just tell them to go and try it. I think it is the mix of the pork and beef together. Thank you for that.

Now that I am not in Dominica anymore, I make it at home now for my family a lot. They love it.

I just had Saba for the first time catered. I am in Krewe du Kanaval. You catered the ball. That was my first experience with Saba.

We were there and watched the Krewe.

Obviously Mardi Gras is a really special thing for people in New Orleans. Did you have a standout moment this year at Mardi Gras?

The standout moment at Mardi Gras this year was being in the Krewe du Kanaval and walking the uptown route. That was the first time doing that. I was surrounded by so many of my friends. It was such a beautiful day and we marched from uptown all the way to downtown. It was an incredible experience. Gosh that seems like a whole world away now.

Do you have an item you can’t live without during quarantine?

My Dutch Oven at my house. It has gotten a great workout. I think I have cooked in it, washed it, and cooked in it again a hundred times in the last few days. I have a whole gallon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which won’t last me too long in my quarantine. I’m going to go pickup another gallon once I have a chance. I go through a lot of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Do you have a dream vacation spot to go to once this is all over?

I haven’t even thought about it. I have been so busy trying to take care of our team and feed people in the community. I think I just want it to be over. I want to be in New Orleans. I want to be in Denver. I want to be with the people I love. That is the vacation I need. 

Your book, An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel: A Cookbook, is a combination of autobiographical stories and cookbook all together. It is beautifully crafted. Have you thought about doing another book?

I have. The right time hasn’t come along to do it. Eventually I will. I have thrown around so many ideas I am not quite sure the direction I will go yet. The moment it hits me I will know it and I will begin working on it.

Was it hard or emotional to write all the memories, from your childhood through recent times?

It was definitely an emotional experience and I learned so much about myself and I learned so much more about my family than I ever knew in the past. It was very hard because there were so many feelings built up in all of that. I found it to be very challenging to balance the stories of my life with how people can relate to those stories now in a cookbook. 

I tried not to sugarcoat anything and be transparent with stories throughout my life and my family’s history. Tina Antolini and I worked together on those narratives and shaping those into chronological order for the book. It was an amazing experience. I laughed and cried so many times throughout the process. I really poured my heart into it. I hope that when people do read the book they can find stories or moments they can relate to and it inspires them to cook the recipes.

Photo provided by the Chef

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